By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — A top Mississippi lawmaker said Friday that budget writers deserve to hear directly from the leader of a governor’s commission that’s studying the Public Employees Retirement System.
House Banking Committee Chairman George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he’s considering issuing a subpoena for Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, the man appointed by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to study PERS.
Flaggs said he wants to know whether the commission might recommend changing or eliminating annual cost-of-living payments. The payments are known as the “13th check” because many retirees take the money as a lump-sum payment at the end of each year.
The commission appointed by Barbour cannot change PERS, only make recommendations. Any changes would have to be approved by lawmakers, most of whom are seeking re-election this year. Many are receiving calls from public employees who are worried about losing money in their retirement plan.
Schloegel could not immediately be reached for comment late Friday.
During budget hearings in September, the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee adopted a resolution saying it opposes any changes to the 13th check. Several members also said they wanted to call Schloegel before the committee to question him about the study commission’s intentions.
“He needs to tell the public whether or not they intend to mess with the 13th check,” Flaggs told The Associated Press on Friday.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is running for governor and is current chairman of the Budget Committee, sent Flaggs a letter this week saying he talked to Barbour about some members’ requests to call Schloegel before the committee.
“As I understand it, Governor Barbour believes that it would be inappropriate for Mr. Schloegel to meet with the Budget Committee because Mr. Schloegel is not a state employee, the Commission is not a state agency, state funds are not being used to pay for the activities of the Commission and the Commission’s report will only be recommendations,” Bryant wrote.
Barbour spokeswoman Laura Hipp said Bryant’s letter accurately represents Barbour’s views.
“The PERS Study Commission is in the early stages of its analysis, meaning Chairman Schloegel does not have any finalized data to present to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee,” Hipp said. “The final report will be presented to all members of the Legislature in mid-November. These will be recommendations for the Legislature and the next governor to consider to protect the long-term solvency of the retirement system.”
Legislative committee chairmen have the power to subpoena people to appear and discuss issues that affect public policy. Flaggs said he has talked to a legislative draftsman about preparing a subpoena for Schloegel to appear before the Banking Committee.
Flaggs, who serves on the Budget Committee, said he’ll try again to persuade Bryant to call Schloegel before the Budget Committee.
“If in fact he still disagrees before the election date, I’ll use that option,” Flaggs said of the subpoena to the Banking Committee.
Bryant said in a statement Friday: “We have an agreement between current retirees and current employees that represent a contract that should not be broken. I will not support any plan to eliminate the 13th check or change the benefits current retirees and current employees have through PERS.”